“Ultimately”, President Obama said in his recent United Nations address, “the task of rejecting sectarianism and extremism is a generational task – a task for the people of the Middle East themselves. No external power can bring about a transformation of hearts and minds.” I couldn’t agree more.
Lyndon Johnson often stated the objective of winning the hearts and minds in Viet Nam. We’ve heard similar talk more recently during our forays into Iraq and Afghanistan. Winning hearts and minds sounds good, so much better than winning military battles, but it is a daunting, perhaps an impossible, task. Let’s be honest, we were way out of our cultural element in Southeast Asia where religion wasn’t an issue and are perhaps even more profoundly so in the Muslim dominated Middle East where it is. Despite heartfelt expressions of respect for it (voiced again by the president), Islam is both obscure and foreign to Westerners, especially Americans. The vast majority has Christian roots, and those of us who don’t share with them a Judeo-Christian oriented mindset. Deep-rooted tribalism is prevalent across much of today’s battleground. It is in part what divides Sunni and Shia but also, among others, ethnic Arabs, Kurds and Persians. In a country where pluralism is an essential element of our story, sectarian and tribal strife are simply not in our cultural vocabulary.
What exactly were Johnson and more recent exponents talking about when they reference hearts and minds”? What does changing mean? To put in marketing terms, what precisely are we selling and is it something that our target audience either wants or, indeed, needs? Ah, the devil in the details problem. George W. Bush essentially contended that everyone in the world was yearning for, and deserving of, democracy. It’s a noble idea in which I think he honestly believed, and likely still does. Missionaries, among them the many young Mormons who are obliged to go out into the world to spread the Word, believe that everyone, even if they don’t know it, needs Christ in their lives. Other hearts and minders think the great “unwashed” require modernity, exemplified of course by our “enlightened” ways.
If you see a common thread here, you’re right. Winning hearts and minds means getting others to think and be much like us. To paraphrase Henry Higgins, “why can’t they be more like us?” Of course, we never admit to that and in fact claim it not to be the case. But if we’re honest with ourselves, a rarity I’ll admit, we approach hearts and minds with some considerable degree of arrogance and self-satisfaction. We may say we deeply respect who and what people are, that we come to aid and protect not to destroy, but what we really want is for them to fall into line, at the very least to lean in our ideological direction. And don’t for a moment assume our intentions are not transparent or that, rather than being seductive, they are often taken in as an affront. I’m not sure how we can win hearts and minds in the hostile environment of the Middle East, and as my questions suggested, I’m not even certain we know what our objective in that regard is or perhaps more importantly should be. Surely trying to impose our set of very Western or non-Muslim values seems to be a wrongheaded and losing proposition. Nothing we Americans can do will end tribalism or sectarian strife now or in the future. Obama clearly understands this when he says, “change can’t be imposed; it has to be generated from within.” So perhaps the only productive heart-and-mind-winning thing we can do is to admit to the folly and inappropriateness of any such ambition.
Winning hearts and minds, certainly as Johnson and more recent leaders have wished it, has always been problematic, if not totally unrealistic. That’s especially so since many of those we want to “win” see us as intruding or invading foreigners — aliens may be more accurate. In their view, even when “invited in”, we’re where we don’t really belong. The kind of pluralism that works for us, a diverse immigrant nation where differences in beliefs are accepted, just doesn’t pertain in most other places, even in much of the West. In the Middle East, it isn’t only the militant extremists who look at us as infidels — or more benignly nonbelievers. Even if they don’t translate their view into violence, many Muslims can’t understand why everyone doesn’t follow Allah. Needless to say, this is not true for all Muslims, but it is probably a pretty widespread view in those places where we profess wanting to win those hearts and minds. Let’s remember that there are also Christians and Jews in the West who aren’t necessarily fundamentalists but can’t understand why anyone does not believe as do they. Are these non-Muslim’s hearts and minds subject to being won over? I don’t think so.
We are not involved in the world because we want to win over hearts and minds. We’re out there because we’ve convinced ourselves that hostilities in far off lands pose a potential threat. President Obama, who probably remains reluctant to reengage, clearly stated protecting Americans as his rationale for moving against ISIS. Sometimes we’ve been out there to protect oppressed peoples, though admittedly only selectively so. It’s ostensibly why America entered World War II and considered it a “good war”. Were we trying to change the hearts and minds of German Nazis? Of course not, we were committed to stopping their aggression and their murder of masses. You can argue, and I think accurately, that the Marshall Plan changed hearts and minds, but that was after a decisive defeat and in a Western context. Europeans and the majority of post war Americans shared common roots. We no longer live in a world of decisive defeats, of end-of-war signing ceremonies and those “common roots”.
I doubt that anyone has illusions about winning the hearts and minds of ISIS. Obama told the UN delegates, “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.” Considering how much blood and treasure we expended in Iraq, it’s understandable that policy makers in Washington feel they have some responsibility in preventing it’s collapse. Much of the pressure of course is political — the often-hyperbolic challenges coming from people like John McCain and, believe it or not, Dick Cheney invigorated by his transplanted heart, one that seems to have the same inclinations as the old one. But pressure is also coming from some of the so-called endangered, Democrats. If our politics were not pathetic enough; it goes way over the edge in election season. We also shouldn’t underestimate the pressure, intuited or real, coming those who put their lives on the line or whose daughters or sons sacrificed theirs. Yes many of us opposed going into Iraq, but consider what it feels like to think your very real and palpable sacrifice was for nothing. And the painful reality is that futility is one of the early lessons of this century. We can’t win hearts and minds, and today’s wars are largely fought without a victory. We enter the fray and more often than not return empty handed, having won a battle but not the war. It isn’t a matter of American decline or loss of power, but of a world in flux, of fast moving and elusive targets. It isn’t only that the rules have changed, but often that there are no rules. None of us here or anywhere else has caught up to what at best is a time of transition. Oh, winning hearts and minds — good luck with that.